Date: Aug 5 (Thu.) 2021, 14:00-16:00
- Huang, Tsung-Wei, Assistant Professor, Department of Information and Computer Engineering, Chung Yuan Christian University
- Yang, Bo-Yin, Research Fellow/Professor, Institute of Information Science, Academia Sinica
Quantum computing is the next step of the computing revolution, causing a craze around the globe. Governments and businesses in the United States, United Kingdom, Japan, Australia, and China all are investing hugely in the development of quantum computing; it also appears in many countries’ national technology development strategies. Thanks to the heavy investment of tech giants such as IBM, Intel, and Google, along with many startups, quantum computing has advanced rapidly, as we can now see the commercial application of the technology.
In his first press conference after taking office, President Joe Biden stressed that ‘the future lies in who can in fact own the future as it relates to technology, quantum computing, a whole range of things…’. However, as much as the possibility of quantum computing bringing great benefit to humankind, people are also deeply concerned about the other possibilities, namely, the abuse of this technology in decrypting the encryption mechanisms maintaining the safety and stability of the Internet. The abuse can come from either malicious attackers or the states. Quantum computing has advanced from laboratory tests to real-life application, and will inevitably transform multiple disciplines from material manufacturing, chemical and pharmaceutical, artificial intelligence, cyber security to fintech. What changes and impacts will this bring to our society? How do state governments and businesses prepare to address this change, identifying niches and gaining advantages while avoiding risks?
The first speaker, Tsung-Wei Huang obtained his Ph.D. in Physics and worked as post-doc researcher in the IBM Q Hub at National Taiwan Universit (the letter Q stands for quantum computing) before his current job as an assistant professor in Information Engineering at Chung Yuan Christian University.
While seemingly a shift between disciplines, Huang explained that this was because quantum physics has extended from mere academic research to commercial applications. One of the common names promoting popular science education about quantum computing in Taiwan, Huang is good at making quantum physics and quantum computing accessible even for ordinary people with a minimum science background.
Huang’s speech began with a look at the history of science evolution. Suppose we visualize the evolution of science as a historical timeline. In that case, we can see that the speed of human beings advancing from one scientific paradigm to the next one grows exponentially. To put this into perspective, we didn’t have electronic light 140 years ago, no computers 80 years ago, biology technology was non-existent 50 years ago, and the seemingly quintessential Internet nowadays only started to exist about 30 years ago. This means that as far-fetch as the future of the common application of quantum computing seems, it will most probably arrive much earlier than we can imagine.
Physics is the foundation of all science. As a result, the advancement of physics has been the driving force of science application evolution. Isaac Newton published Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (Principia) in 1687 and established classical mechanics. In Principia, Newton formulated the laws of motion and universal gravitation that formed the dominant scientific viewpoint until it was superseded by the theory of relativity.
In 1865, James Clerk Maxwell published A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field, demonstrating that electric and magnetic fields travel through space as waves moving at the speed of light. His discoveries helped usher in the era of modern physics, laying the foundation for such fields as special relativity and quantum mechanics.
Without the theory of relativity developed by Elbert Einstein, most of the modern technology would not have been possible. Less well-known was his contributions to developing the theory of quantum mechanics, which, together with relativity, became the two pillars of modern physics.
Another takeaway from this genealogy of physics is that whoever gets their hand on cutting-edge technology will become the most powerful country in the world. Early and generous investments in quantum physics are what state governments and industry do to either secure or in an attempt to grasp the global leadership in the coming decades.
Huang also reviewed the history of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics became the standard formulation for atomic physics when German physicists Werner Heisenberg, Max Born, and Pascual developed matrix mechanics in the early 1920s. Together with wave mechanics invented by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger, the two scientific discoveries gave birth to the entire field of quantum physics, leading to its wider acceptance at the Fifth Solvay Conference in 1927.
For some, the first quantum war was initiated by the Manhattan Project—where the Americans invented nuclear weapons and put them into use. The Quantum Manifesto published by the EU Commission in 2016 demonstrated a different perspective. It sees the emergence of technologies such as the transistor, solid-state lighting and lasers, and GPS—resulting from the understanding and application of physical laws in the microscopic realm—the first quantum revolution. The manifesto also emphasized the need for Europe to plan and invest strategically in order to lead the second quantum revolution in the anticipated near future.
As suggested, whoever controls the cutting-edge technology is promised the power to secure global leadership. It is not a surprise, therefore, that countries and regions such as the US, the EU, and China continue to double down their investments in quantum computing.
In 2018, Trump signed the National Quantum Initiative Act, authorizing $1.2 billion over five years for federal activities aimed at boosting investment in quantum information science and supporting a quantum-smart workforce. Intending to spur students’ interest in quantum information science (QIS) as early as possible, the legislation incorporates QIS into grade school curriculum and broadens access to QIS studies throughout K-12 education.
On the other side of the Pacific, China, while its overall spending on quantum computing is unknown, the government is investing $10 billion in building the world’s largest quantum research facility in Hefei.
Many regard the countries’ quests for quantum supremacy as the arm race of this century. But what exactly can quantum computing do? According to the EU’s Quantum Manifesto, in less than 10 years, quantum computer equipped with larger than 100 physical qubits will be able to solve chemistry and materials science problems that the current supercomputer will never be able to solve. In more than 10 years, universal quantum computers will be reprogrammable machines used to solve demanding computational problems, such as optimization tasks, database searches, machine learning, and image recognition.
Multiple fields will benefit hugely from the advancement of quantum computing, from automobile, electrical engineering, medicine, finance to information security. As we aspire to a future where quantum computers perform unimaginable tasks with precision and efficiency, Huang reminded us that we would also have to get on the wave and start to familiarize ourselves with this dominant technology for the next century. Otherwise, we might risk losing our jobs as blue-collar workers lost them to machines in the 1980s.
The second speaker was Bo-Yin Yang, Research Fellow and Professor at the Institute of Information Science in Academia Sinica. Before his speech, Yang made a few clarifications. First of all, the numbers of physical qubits quantum computers claim to equip do not represent the actual amount of actually working physical qubits.
The main difference between an ordinary computer and a quantum computer is that while the former operates on bits, the latter uses qubits. We can think of bits as tiny switches; they are either ‘off’—represented by a zero – or ‘on’ – represented by a one. The combination of millions of these zeros and ones constitutes modern computers. Qubits are distinct from bits in that they do not need to be in either an on or off position. They can be in a ‘superposition’ where they are both on and off simultaneously or somewhere on a spectrum between the two. Because qubits are incredibly sensitive to interference, they can easily be knocked out of the delicate state of superposition. This means that many of the qubits equipped in a quantum computer might not work because they cannot stay in the superposition.
Another noteworthy point was that the capacity of a quantum computer, unlike many articles would lead one to believe, is rather limited. Quantum computers are meant to replace the classical computers; they only supersede the current supercomputers when calculating specific math problems, namely, discrete logarithm and factoring. The latter is significant because breaking down large numbers into prime numbers can take the fastest supercomputer in the world tens of millions of years to solve, and that is why factorization is the backbone of a lot of encryption systems nowadays.
Rumor has it that intelligence agencies worldwide are already stockpiling vast amounts of encrypted data in the hope of cracking it as soon as they have access to a quantum computer. Does this mean that all encrypted data are at risk? Not entirely so. Yang explained that although quantum computers are outstanding in factoring, there are still a lot of math problems quantum computers cannot solve. These problems—or algorithms—are the basis of post-quantum cryptography (PQC); decryption systems that utilize algorithms uncrackable by quantum computers, thus securing our data against them.
Specializing in applied cryptography, Yang has participated in the PQC competition held by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and made it to the third round. During his speech, Yang shared his journey of the competition, assuring the audience that we can keep our data safe as long as we are quick enough to update our public-key cryptosystems to adopt PQC.